How Do I Become a Registered Nurse?

Qualifying as a registered nurse requires a significant amount of preparation, education and practical experience. Get a quick view of the requirements as well as details about degree programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

Essential Information

Individuals looking to become registered nurses (RNs) can do so through education, clinical experience and licensing. RNs work in healthcare settings, treating patients and educating the public on health-related topics, such as illness, injuries, nutrition, recovery and exercise. Duties typically include administering treatments, observing patients, and keeping medical records updated.

Required EducationBachelor's or associate's program in nursing
Other RequirementsState licensure required
Projected Job Growth19% from 2012 to 2022*
Average Salary (2014) $69,790 annually*

Source *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Step 1: Complete a Nursing Program

Students begin their paths to becoming RNs by enrolling in diploma, associate degree or bachelor's degree programs. Diploma and associate degree programs generally take 2-3 years to complete, while bachelor's degree programs typically take four. Coursework covers dispensing pharmaceuticals and preparation for situations nurses face in clinical settings. Course topics can include:

  • Nursing leadership and management
  • Anatomy
  • Biology
  • Informatics
  • Health assessment

Step 2: Gain Clinical Experience

Students must complete a certain number of hours of clinical work to graduate from a nursing program and qualify for state licensure. Students train in live clinical settings, such as health centers or hospitals, under the guidance of experienced nursing faculty. They learn to use specialized equipment and observe procedures for reacting to different types of patients and situations. Students enrolled in bachelor's degree programs typically gain more clinical experience in non-hospital settings than do students enrolled in associate degree or diploma programs.

Step 3: Get Licensed

All states require graduates to earn a license in order to legally work as a registered nurse. Candidates must pass the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), which is administered by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing. To qualify for the computer-adaptive exam, candidates must have completed an approved nursing program. States might also require additional jurisdictional testing or other licensure requirements, such as background checks or health screenings.

Step 4: Fulfill Continuing Education Requirements

Many states require RNs to complete continuing education in order to keep their nursing licenses active. The exact number of hours varies by state. Some possible options that earn continuing education credit include professional certification in a nursing field, medical research projects, college-level classes or accredited online courses. State nursing boards maintain a list of acceptable courses, programs and activities.

Step 5: Advance A Career

Becoming an RN can provide many pathways for career advancement with additional training, education and experience. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing, specialty certificate or Master of Science in Nursing can prepare experienced RNs for management, consulting, teaching or research positions, as well as numerous clinical specializations within the nursing profession. Nurses can choose to specialize in areas such as pediatric or geriatric nursing through additional education or optional certification. RNs can also become advanced practice nurses, such as clinical nurse specialists or nurse practitioners.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has predicted that from 2012-2022, employment will increase 19% for RNs and 34% for nurse practitioners. In 2014, the BLS indicated that RNs earned an average of $69,790 per year and nurse practitioners averaged $97,990.

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